A nod to happy campers Summer camps have been around for a century, and in all that time, a museum exhibit suggests, not much about them has changed.

November 22, 1998|By BOSTON GLOBE

LEXINGTON, Mass. -- Fall is giving way to winter, but in the Museum of Our National Heritage here, summer - at least that part of it known as summer camp - is in full bloom.

Summer Camp, an exhibition created by guest curators (and husband and wife) Richard and Kellie Gutman, is the result of the Gutmans' survey of some 70 camps around New England, where the summer-camping movement started at the end of the last century.

Some of the items on display are fraught with camp tradition. One corner, called the Waterfront, has a restored 1923 war canoe on loan from Camp Winona for Boys in Bridgton, Maine. The Campfire Room is dominated by a sign from Camp Kirby in Townsend, Mass., the words of which are spelled out in twigs: "Here Let the Fires of Everlasting Friendship Burn."

But these are not all musty artifacts. Richard Gutman says that, over the years, remarkably little about camping has changed. Today's camper may be sleeping in the same cabin that her mother, or her grandmother, slept in when she was a girl, and learning the same camp songs and traditions.

Camp continues to have a powerful appeal to young people, the Gutmans say. Each summer, some 4 million young people go off to summer camp, most of them eagerly. Richard Gutman says he's amazed that his own daughter, Lucy, age 15, leaves behind television, telephone and computer to live in a cabin with no electricity.

"It's still a way to have a lot of new experiences, get away from your parents and meet new kids," he says.

Gutman himself spent six summers at Camp Wigwam in Harrison, Maine. "It had an impact on me and will for my whole life, as I think camp has for so many people," he says.

Private camps proliferated in the early decades of the cen-tury, as did summer camps subsidized by settlement houses and religious, social and youth agencies. On display in Lexington is an 1895 YMCA summer camp instruction list: "Don't take straw or derby hats to camp. They are not comfortable to sleep in. ... Don't wear a 'boiled' shirt and starched collar. ... Positively no firearms allowed."

New England still has more camps by far than any other part of the country. The exhibition places camping in its context, as part of social and educational movements that stressed the importance of fresh air, physical exercise and spiritual development.

The Gutmans collected old film footage and photographs of camp life and produced videotapes for the exhibit. A tape of camp songs ("Buckle down, Winona, buckle down ...") provides background noise. About all that's missing are the familiar smells of summer camp: pine needles, mildew, burnt marshmallows.

Sure to induce nostalgia, though, is the exhibit's Arts & Crafts corner, with its choice collection of summer campiana: rough-hewn wooden bookends, misshapen pottery ashtrays and the like. And visitors who never quite got the hang of those summer camp projects can try their hand again: The exhibit offers them the chance to finally learn to weave a gimp lanyard.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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